Blakehill Farm, 14th April and Ravensroost Wood, 16th April 2018

Desperate to get some ringing activity in between all of this rain, I have had the nets open in the garden for a few hours in between showers.  It has been a pleasantly varied catch with one sparkling bonus: my first garden Blackcap.  It was a female coming into breeding condition, but weighing in at over 20g.  I cannot decide whether she has had an easy migration to the UK and not used up a lot of her fat reserves, or is having a late departure to central Europe to breed.

The birds caught were: Blue Tit 4(1); Great Tit 3; Long-tailed Tit 2; Blackbird 1; Blackcap 1; Starling 3; Chaffinch 1; Greenfinch 1; Goldfinch 4(3); Robin 2. Totals: 22 birds ringed from 10 species; four birds retrapped from two species, making 26 birds processed from 10 species.

I did catch a Wren, which I incompetently managed to allow to escape from the bag as I was taking it out to ring it, and a beautiful male Chaffinch that I couldn’t ring as it was showing signs of Fringilla Papilloma Virus.

On Saturday, with the weather forecast for sunshine and minimal wind, Steph and I went to Blakehill Farm, basing ourselves at the Whitworth Building.  With just the two of us we didn’t set a lot of net, three rides, and, consequently, had a small catch. As with the garden, the variety was good: Great Tit (3); Wren 1; Dunnock 2(1); Chiffchaff 3; Linnet 1; House Sparrow 3. Totals: 10 birds ringed from five species; four birds retrapped from two species, making 14 birds processed from six species.

Two of the Great Tits were interesting: they were caught at opposite ends of the site, but had consecutive ring numbers. Potentially nest mates who have dispersed to find their own territories.  There were half-a-dozen Linnets flying around, but we only managed to catch the one, fine looking, male:


We don’t catch many House Sparrows: they seem to be very good at avoiding nets, so catching three was unusual for us.  They were all males:


Because we have missed so many sessions this year I decided to go for an extra session at Ravensroost Woods on Monday.  I was joined by Hayley Roberts, for her first taster session as a potential trainee.  Again, being mindful that I was the only person available to extract birds, we only set two rides and had an appropriately small catch.  The catch for the day was: Blue Tit 4(1); Robin (1); Blackbird (1); Blackcap 3(1); Chiffchaff 1; Goldcrest 2.  Totals: 10 birds ringed from four species; four birds retrapped from four species, making 14 birds processed from six species.

All of the birds caught were showing signs of coming into breeding condition: it won’t be long before they are laying and brooding.  Not spectacularly large catches but thoroughly enjoyable sessions.

The photos are courtesy of Steph Buggins. Thanks Steph.

Webb’s Wood, Sunday 1st April & Lower Moor Farm, Thursday, 5th April 2018

These two sessions were both scheduled for the day before they were actually carried out but, because of the weather, each had to be postponed for 24 hours.  My team is scheduled to do approximately 100 ringing sessions per annum. In the last year we have had to cancel 25% of them and move another 5% because of the change in the weather to a wetter and windier profile.

I have removed the feeding stations from all of the sites now, so we will not be catching the Tit flocks that have been the staple of our winter catches.  At Webb’s Wood I was joined by Steph and David (back from university for the Easter holidays), and we set up a few nets along the main tracks at the top end of the wood.  There wasn’t a large catch but it was a pleasant session with no pressure on extracting the birds.  As we have been unable to find a trainer for David to work with whilst in Aberystwyth, I am astonished at how quickly he gets back into the extraction and processing techniques.

The catch for the day was: Blue Tit 4(1); Great Tit (1); Coal Tit 2; Long-tailed Tit (2); Robin 3; Song Thrush (1); Chiffchaff 2; Goldcrest 3(4). Totals: 14 birds ringed from five species, nine birds retrapped from five species, making 23 birds processed from eight species.

There was nothing exceptional in the catch, but it is always good to retrap Goldcrests at the end of the winter: weighing in at approximately 5g survival must always be on a knife-edge.

Our trip to Lower Moor Farm on Thursday was not only the wrong day but also the wrong site.  We had scheduled to ring at Blakehill Farm but, due to an unfortunate confusion, I was given the wrong combination for the padlock on the gate and, as it is about one mile to the ringing site, I wasn’t prepared to carry my kit that far, even with Jonny’s help.  Rather than telephoning people at 6:15 in the morning to get the correct code (apparently not everybody is up bright and early), we decided to decamp to Lower Moor Farm.

It was a lovely morning but not too many birds hitting the nets. However, we had our first Blackcaps of the year arrive on site, with four males and a female being caught.  All five were carrying reasonable levels of fat for birds that have completed the longest part of their migration.

The catch was: Treecreeper 1(1); Blue Tit 1(1); Long-tailed Tit (2); Wren 1; Dunnock 1(2); Robin 1; Song Thrush 2; Blackbird (1); Blackcap 5; Chiffchaff 1; Bullfinch 1(1). Totals: 14 birds ringed from nine species; eight birds retrapped from six species, making 22 birds processed from 11 species.  It is a good start to the early Spring migration. The only downside: it was perfect weather for working at Blakehill Farm.

Kings Farm Wood Ringing Demonstration: Sunday, 25th March 2018

This event was originally scheduled for the Saturday but, with an adverse weather forecast, we moved it to the Sunday. Weather-wise, it was a good move. After my test run on the 16th,  we decided to only set three sets of nets, two by the feeding stations and one in a small glade between the two feeding stations.  We had a strong extraction team out today: with Ellie, Jonny and Steph carrying out those duties, whilst I did the demonstrating.  It worked well, with the team doing regular rounds every 15 minutes, giving me enough birds to keep the audience informed and entertained.

I think everybody enjoyed the session (with just the one minor hiccup) and we had a reasonable catch of 31 birds.  There were fewer birds than I was expecting, and I am not sure why the numbers were down. I had topped up the feeders on Thursday and they were empty again when I arrived on site, so I filled them again, expecting that would bring them back in.  Unfortunately, it didn’t but we did have a steady run of birds coming through, which ensured the ringing demonstration went well.
The list for the day was: Blue Tit 5(3); Great Tit 9(4); Long-tailed Tit (2); Robin 3; Chiffchaff 1; Chaffinch 3(1). Totals: 21 birds ringed from five species, 10 birds retrapped from four species, making a total of 31 birds processed from six species.
All of the children were taught how to safely hold and release birds and they all got to do so for a couple of the birds each.  They are first subjected to the “pecked by a Blue Tit” test, to ensure they won’t overreact to the birds when handling them.  Also, every adult who wanted to also got taught how to hold and release a bird.
The birding highlight was our first Chiffchaff of the year.  As everyone who was there will know, the lowlight (the minor hiccup) was the man who ignored the warning signs set by the net rides and was trying to get a Great Tit out of the net.  After being stopped, he chose to assault me in front of some 20 witnesses, one of whom filmed it on his phone.  I picked myself up off the floor and just extracted the bird he was close to maiming: I don’t do violence.  It has taken five years and about 450 ringing sessions for someone to get violent with me because of bird ringing, so I won’t let it put me off.  Thanks to everyone for their subsequent support.  I was going to ignore it but, because it was a formal, organised event, and at the insistence of the BTO and the Wildlife Trust, it has now been reported to the police.


Long Distance Coal Tit, Periparus ater

On Friday, 16th March, Andrew Bray was ringing at his Lacock Abbey Allotments site. He had a decent session: 35 birds caught, 22 ringed and 13 recaptures.  Amongst the recaptures was a solitary Coal Tit, ring number Z495503.  The ring series looked familiar, and it didn’t prompt any particular additional interest.

Today I received a report from the British Trust for Ornithology.  This bird was originally ringed on the 3rd January 2015 at the Ordiequish Forest, Fochabers, Moray.  It has travelled 687km in 1,168 days.  The previous movement record for a Coal Tit in the UK and Ireland is 636km in 1,133 days.  That bird moved from Highland to Herefordshire.

Kings Farm Wood: Friday, 16th March 2018

This is the first ever ringing session at Kings Farm Wood.  We usually do our ringing demonstrations for the Swindon Wildlife Group at the Ravensroost complex, but this year we were asked to do something different and the suggestion was the Clout’s Wood complex, of which Kings Farm Wood is a significant part.  The ringing demonstration has been set for the 24th March and, in preparation for that, I went for a test session this morning.  I set up two feeding stations last week, which I topped up this Wednesday afternoon, and are now actively being visited by birds.  As I was on my own, having shifted the session from Saturday to today because of the dire weather forecast for the weekend, I decided to set just two rides of two nets by the feeding stations.
That plan changed almost immediately: I put up the first net at the furthest feeding station and by the time I had erected the second net at that location, there were six birds in the first net.  It remained catching constantly throughout the morning.  As you expect in a wood at this time of year by a feeding station, the catch was mainly titmice, particularly Blue and Great Tits.  However there was a decent variety over the course of the morning.
Interestingly, in the area where the other feeding station is set up there were several additional species not caught today, but hopefully will be so when that ride is netted.  These included Magpie, Goldfinch, Blackbird, Wren and Great Spotted Woodpecker.  There were also several singing Chiffchaffs on site who managed to avoid the nets.
Anyway, todays catch was:  Blue Tit 24; Great Tit 16; Coal Tit 2; Long-tailed Tit 4; Dunnock 4; Robin 2; Chaffinch 2; Bullfinch 2.  Total: 56 birds ringed from eight species.  Unsurprisingly, this being the first time the site has ever been ringed, there were no retrapped birds – apart from half-a-dozen same day retraps.  I did catch a third each of Chaffinch and Bullfinch but they both had Fringilla Papilloma Virus, so I released them.  I also used alcohol rub on my hands to ensure I didn’t pass anything onto the other vulnerable species and cleaned their legs with alcohol as well to be doubly sure.
I will top up the feeders again next Thursday, to make sure they are ready for the demonstration on Saturday.  It looks very promising.  I think we will have plenty of birds and should have a decent variety for the demonstration, without going overboard with too many nets set up: I think eight nets will do.

Lower Moor Farm: Wednesday, 14th March 2018

An interesting session at Lower Moor Farm this morning.  Our last trip there was massively disappointing, with just 12 birds processed.  I really didn’t want a similar result this week, as we had children from Devizes Academy coming along to see what happens with bird ringing, as part of their time at the reserve today.  Jonny, Ellie and Andrew joined me for the session.

Because of the previous session, I took the risk of changing the catching site to the pond-dipping / nature education area and set up a couple of feeders in there on Monday.  The schoolchildren arrived at 9:45. These are children deemed to be at risk or too disruptive to be in lessons. Wiltshire Wildlife Trust runs a whole series of events and visits for children from local secondary schools, to get them involved with nature in an active manner. Whenever possible, we try to arrange our ringing sessions at Lower Moor Farm to coincide with their visits. The children were immediately involved and interested. Great questions from them, and they were delighted to get close to the birds. At their request, they stayed with us for over an hour, instead of the thirty minutes allocated.  We enjoyed their curiosity and enthusiasm.

As the children left, we were joined by a large group from the Wildlife Trust’s Well-Being programme. This is another excellent initiative run by the Trust to help connect vulnerable people with nature. As they were all adults, I asked if they were happy to have their photo taken and published, which they were and which is posted below.

LMF 2018_03_14

The catch was wildly unexciting, mainly Blue Tits and Great Tits but, because we were able to entertain two groups of interested and interesting people, it was a very satisfying session.  The list for the session was: Blue Tit 26(10); Great Tit 23(5); Long-tailed Tit 1(5); Dunnock 1(2); Robin 1; Song Thrush 1; Chaffinch 1.  A total of 76 birds from seven species: 54 ringed from seven species and 22 retraps from four species.

Many thanks to Jonny, Ellie and Andrew for their hard work this morning.

Winter Bird Fair: Langford Lakes, Saturday, 24th February 2018

One of the things I am proudest of about the West Wilts Ringing Group is our working relationships with a wide range of scientific and conservation organisations, both national and local.  One of our key partnerships is with the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust.  They know that they can rely on us to support their events throughout the year and, in return, we are privileged to have access to their nature reserves.  This Saturday was an excellent example of how it works, with their Winter Bird Fair at Langford Lakes.

Rob Turner took on the burden of organising our team effort, recruiting his friend and golfing buddy, Paul, to be our scribe for the day. He made a fine job of it: recording all of the information thrown at him, by up to three ringers processing, and amongst the press of the public watching and asking questions.  The extracting and processing team comprised Rob, me, Andy Palmer, Jonny Cooper and, joining us for the first time, Aurora Goncalo. Aurora is a Bristol based trainee, whose trainer is currently very busy with his job (part of which is supervising Jonny in his Master’s project), so she is looking for other groups to work with.  I know both parties were very pleased with the link up.

With the public arriving at 10:00, we opened the nets at 09:30.  This is a late start for a bird ringing session but we were happy about it, as it gave the temperature time to warm up, and the birds time to feed up after a cold night, before we started catching them.   By the time we had opened the nets we had our first birds: a Goldcrest and a Great Tit.

Things took off with our very first full net round.  Having extracted the usual Blue and Great Tits, we were walking back along the net ride when Jonny took off at a sprint.  He got there in time to extract a male Sparrowhawk.  It had been chasing a Long-tailed Tit, that was in the net below. We decided that the potential prey didn’t need any additional stress, so we released it unharmed and it flew off strongly.   With Amy from the Trust having had the foresight to bring a set of walkie-talkies, the news travelled quickly and most of the 80 attendees congregated at the Visitor Centre to see this cracking male bird.

Bird Fair 16 Langford Lakes Ralph Harvey 24.02.18 WWT (Small)

Bird Fair 19 Langford Lakes Ralph Harvey 24.02.18 WWT (Small)

We were lucky enough to catch a good variety of birds during the day, coming in regular small numbers, which enabled us to show a variety of different birds to a large and appreciative audience throughout the day.  But the session, having started so well, finished with a magnificent flourish: a pair of Kingfishers.  I say “pair” knowing the connotations of the term.  These two birds were caught close together in the same net. They were a male and a female.  Once they had been processed, and the crowd had their opportunity to see these spectacular birds close up, we released them and they flew off together, calling. I am pretty confident that they are a pair.

Bird Fair 46 Langford Lakes Ralph Harvey 24.02.18 WWT (Small)

The list for the day was: Sparrowhawk 1; Kingfisher 2; Treecreeper 2; Blue Tit 14(1); Great Tit 10; Long-tailed Tit 5; Wren 1; Robin 1(1); Song Thrush 1; Blackbird 2; Goldcrest 1; Chaffinch 1; Goldfinch 2. Totals: 43 birds ringed from 13 species, two birds retrapped from two species, making 45 birds processed from 13 species.

Having had a lovely day, with good weather, a great catch and a large, appreciative audience, we had one unpleasant moment. In an effort (forlorn as it turned out) to possibly catch a Water Rail or a duck, we set a few Potter traps. These are walk-in traps, baited up with food, with a trip that closes a gate, capturing any bird (or other animal) that is attracted in.  These are humane, entirely non-lethal traps.  Somebody clearly took exception to finding one of these traps and stomped on it, severely damaging the trap.  Whilst some of us are lucky enough to get some external funding, most don’t.  Ringing is an expensive business: a net and two poles costs over £100.  Every ring used costs at least 26p (approximately 1 million birds are ringed every year in the UK) and these Potter traps cost in the region of £40 a time.  We all invest significant time and money in carrying out our citizen science.  Unfortunately, on occasion we are abused, insulted, threatened, assaulted and have our equipment damaged by ignorant people – but we carry on regardless, because the work is important and the results are their own reward.

All photos  courtesy of Ralph Harvey, WWT Photographer.